Few teams have suffered such a violently reversal of fortunes in the last twelves months than the Shanghai Sharks. This time last year, the team had made the postseason despite being widely regarded as a bottom five team. Moreover, the Sharks did this on the back of the best defense in the CBA (have been ranked the worst in 2010/11) and a canny utilization of the triangle offense that helped bring many of Shanghai’s unheralded Chinese players into games.
Now though, the success of the previous season, which saw Shanghai make the playoffs for only the second time since winning it all in 2002, has been wasted after the Sharks’ most disastrous season since the CBA adapted its’ current thirty-two game format.
The unwitting catalyst for this year’s dire 10-22 season is Gilbert Arenas, on whom the Sharks’ gambled everything and subsequently lost it all. The decision to bring the two-time All-Star in to boost Shanghai’s offensive game looked on paper to be a savvy move but the reality of the situation was that Arenas had already been jettisoned from the Guangdong Tigers’ training camp and that there were widely held suspicions about Agent Zero’s health. The warnings were there but the Sharks’ fatally chose to ignore them.
In doing so, their season was doomed within six minutes of the Sharks’ season opener away at Beijing. When Arenas hobbled off and no-one knew the extent of his injury, head coach Daniel Panaggio must have known his time in Shanghai was basically done.
Indeed, the Sharks limped on without Arenas for as long as they could but ultimately they were never going to compete with teams that had two, sometimes three foreign players to Shanghai’s sole American, DJ White. To his credit, White carried the team exceptionally well and was a thankless presence on both sides of the court but two wins in the first twelve games made it painfully clear how most CBA teams struggle without experienced Americans to seize the initiative. Elijah Millsap, who’d been cut to make room for Arenas must have been laughing at the spectacle and if he wasn’t, the majority of Chinese basketball was. Blowouts were a regular occurrence as opposing teams quickly isolated White and forced others to carry the load. Somewhat predictably, a rattled medley of players like Meng Lingyuan and xxx couldn’t.
As the season went on and the numbers of losses increased, the inevitable search for a scapegoat began. Daniel Panaggio, who’d completely turned the Sharks around the previous year became the target for collective ire of fans and local media, which though harsh, always seemed to be coming. The early days of Panaggio’s time with the Sharks had brought constant questions about the triangle offense and his team’s no-thrills style of basketball but this had been silenced during the successes of the American’s first season in charge at Shanghai. However, when the going was bad, the doubters quickly found their voice once again.
The axe would come after Beijing came to Shanghai and blew the Sharks out at home in front of a half empty arena (by contrast, the previous season’s fixture had been a sell-out) and Panaggio was shown the door. Eric Zhang, the team GM, Liu Wei, who had leaked pictures of him training with Arenas on Weibo and and had reportedly lobbied hard for him to be signed, the team doctors whom Arenas himself seemed to suggest had misdiagnosed his injury all survived relatively unscathed. From a Western point of view, it all seemed so needlessly self-destructive and short-termist but maddeningly, this is still typical stuff for Chinese basketball.
With Wang Qun installed, not a lot changed, regardless of a few wins. A close-to-healthy Arenas finally returned and put up big numbers, most notably against Xinjiang, Jiangsu and Jillin but to say this was down the new man at the helm would be misleading. Without Arenas, the team still threw away an eighteen point lead against a Tracy McGrady-less Qingdao in a humiliating road loss and the harsh reality was that without their star American, the team were never going to achieve much regardless of who was on the sidelines. The lazy, halfhearted performances shown in the brace of losses during Shanghai’s final two games of the season made this painfully clear.
Its only right though to also acknowledge the dreadful luck that Shanghai suffered throughout the season. Liu Wei started the season fully justifying MVP chants only to succumb to injury himself after the midway point of the season and thus leaving the backcourt in the hands of third-string guard Ge Yong. Liu Ziqui and Zhang Zhaoxu also missed time through illness and injury meaning that DJ White was the only prominent Shark not to skip games whilst some hugely questionable refereeing calls robbed the team of wins against Hangzhou and Dongguan.
In a season that many hoped would lead to a deep play-off run, instead the Sharks have finished the 2012/13 season in complete disarray. There are obviously some positives; young forward Cai Liang showed glimpses of real talent whilst the nature of Shanghai’s defiant road win in Ningbo against Bayi (largely thanks to DJ White’s all-action performance) was fantastic to see- but there remains several arenas of concern going forward.
Firstly, Liu Wei, Shanghai’s beloved talisman is aging fast and injuries mean he will struggle to be a cornerstone of Shanghai’s offense next season. Zhang Zhaoxu also continues to be a frustrating figure whose relatively strong finish masked a sloppy opening half of the season that saw him coming off the bench in some games. Still far too gangly for his 7″3 frame, the big man not only needs to get his weight up but also finally find a killer instinct in the paint. This November onwards was supposed to be Zhang’s time to become a reliable double-double guy but instead, two-and-a-half seasons into his CBA career, there is a real danger that ‘Max’ might lose his place in the national team to rivals like Han Dejun, Li Xiaoxu and the current darling of the CBA, Fujian’s Wang Zhelin.
There is also the matter of who will coach the team this coming November. Wang Qun would presumably like the job whilst there are rumors (however unlikely) that Bob Donewald might return to the Yuanshen following his acrimonious exit three years ago. However, Wang struggled to lift the team when he didn’t have Arenas to get it done on the court whilst Donewald would be unlikely to return to Shanghai or China having reportedly fallen out with the Sharks’ front office in the build up to his unlikely departure in 2011 and his humiliating dismissal after nine games at Xinjiang last year. Ironically, the best man to pick up a broken, fragmented team would be the coach Shanghai uncerimiously kicked to the curb five months ago but Panaggio is now safely back in his old job as head of scouting with the Phoenix Suns and will probably not set foot in Chinese basketball again.
This are worrying times for Shanghai even though they will have a third foreigner for next season as a result of their bottom five finish this time around. They might even make a play-off run but even then, unless the team’s Chinese roster is stabelised and new players brought through successfully, the Sharks might easily become a yo-yo club that shifts between bottom and top five finishes for many years. If that is the case, then its fair to say that 2012/13 will be the year the rot started.